Did Westside sprout a Nobel Prize?
A Nobel Peace Prize for Greg Mortenson? Jerene Mortenson, Westside Elementary principal (1986-98), brushed aside the notion. She put her son's mission in perspective.
"For me, a source of pride is what Greg continues doing, rather than all the recognition he's getting for doing it," Jerene said last week from her home in Little Canada, Minn. "My career was in education, and my pleasure now is to see what he's done to help those thousands of kids, especially girls, in getting them educated."
Last month a bipartisan group of six members of Congress nominated Greg Mortenson for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The various Nobel winners are announced in October.
How does all this relate to Westside Elementary? That's part of history.
In the early 1990s, Greg, grieving over the death of his young sister, vowed to climb K2 in the Himalayans, the world's second tallest mountain. He would do so to honor his sister's memory.
But Greg didn't quite make it to the top. Stumbling back down, alone, worn out, he came upon the Pakistani village of Korphe.
The children there were sitting in the dirt, scratching out lessons with sticks. They had no teacher.
Rescued and grateful to the villagers, Greg finally left, vowing to build a school for Korphe.
Back in the United States, Greg's school fundraising efforts fizzled. He implored the rich and famous but got no takers.
Then he visited his mother's school at Westside and spoke about his love for mountain climbing and his school-building dream.
Greg's presentation ignited both students and staff at Westside. He would later say of their offer to help: "They said we're going to help raise money for a school. I didn't think much of it, just some kids. Six weeks later, I got a call and Westside School had raised 62,340 pennies.
"When you think about it, it wasn't the famous people, it wasn't celebrities, it wasn't movie stars, it wasn't sports heroes. It was children reaching out to children halfway around the world, and they did it with pennies."
The penny-driven $623 jumpstarted Greg's fundraising. From there it took off. Greg has never looked back.
Built in 1996, his first Pakistani school in the mountains was named Korphe-Westside by thankful villagers.
In the following years, through Greg's nonprofit organization Central Asia Institute, 78 schools in rural mountainous Pakistan and Afghanistan been built, plus 40 "teaching stations."
His mother Jerene said that over the past dozen years, 28,000 youngsters have been educated through the school-building program -- more than half of them girls.
Rather than the Nobel Peace Prize talk, Jerene said what she found "staggering" was the difference Greg's efforts have made in a part of the world that often shuns female education.
"There are five girls over there now who are in medical school who would otherwise have been illiterate," Jerene said. "The are other girls who are going into engineering, political science, teaching, nursing, law school, all because of the basic schooling they received or because of scholarships."
In 2009 Central Asia Institute has plans to build another half-dozen schools.
Jerene said Greg's school-building program has boosted the standard of living while reducing the infant mortality and birth rates. It also promotes peace in an area rife with Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
"In Islam, going on a Jihad (often interpreted as holy war), requires that you get a mother's permission or it's a disgrace if you don't," Jerene said. "And educated women are no longer giving their sons permission to blow themselves up."
Recognition for Greg, whose motto is "books not bombs," hasn't let up. He has had three versions of the same book ranked in the top five of the New York Times bestseller list: "Three Cups of Tea" (adult paperback); "Three Cups of Tea" (young reader category); and "Listen to the Wind" (children's book).
Last year "Three Cups of Tea" was the book pick for River Falls Reads, the annual program that gets local citizens reading and talking about a selected book. Jerene returned to River Falls to talk about Greg's work and discuss "Three Cups of Tea."
This spring Greg is also due to receive the Star of Pakistan, the highest civilian award given out by that country's government. A ceremony for him will be held in Islamabad March 23, during Pakistan's Independence Day.
Greg and his daughter were also featured last week on the NBC "Today Show." There, Greg admitted it was "very humbling" to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Westside's 1994 Pennies for Pakistan has morphed into "Pennies for Peace," an ongoing global program supported by thousands of schools to advance educational opportunities for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On the Today show, Greg said Pennies for Peace fundraising has gone "bananas," raising millions for the cause he champions.
Jerene said Greg will never forget the role River Falls and Westside made in bringing meaning to what turned out to be his life's work.
"His book, which mentions Westside, has been translated into many languages and published in 29 countries," she said. "That probably makes Westside one of the most famous schools in the world."
Jerene said the pennies drive at Westside was overseen by teachers and staff but "student generated."
"Every single child in that school felt they could be a part of it," she said. "The idea of using pennies really caught on. By the time it was done, there wasn't a single penny left on the sidewalks of River Falls, and it was the largest single donation Greg had received at that point."
Westside librarian Darrell Anderson, then a fifth grade teacher, said Westsiders could relate to the humble penny.
"It was a manageable amount for them, something they could easily contribute to without straining the household budget," he said. "I remember the students' enthusiasm for saving quite clearly. The whole thing formed a connection in their minds to a place on the other side of the world."
Students hauled in piggy banks and other containers of coins. Those were fed into classroom jars and buckets. During Friday school assemblies, the penny collections were poured into a decorated wagon.
Anderson said the Pennies for Pakistan, which kept on through the 1990s, lit a spark in Westside students. It increased their curiosity for world affairs and sensitized them to those less fortunate.
And the school legacy of giving endures in the form of clothing and food drives that go toward the needy in River Falls.
Besides Pennies for Pakistan, Anderson said the school has also done "Caring Coins" after the 9/11 attacks; "Coins for Crisis" for disaster relief after the destructive South Asian tsunami; and another "Caring Coins" following Hurricane Katrina.
Even more impressive, another "pennies" fundraiser over a two-week period last fall at Westside took in $1,233, nearly twice as much as the first pennies drive in 1994!
Anderson admitted that the second time, Westside kids brought in larger-denomination coins and cash.
He summed up the Westside legacy this way: "I think that Pennies for (Pakistan/Peace) and similar programs send a great message to kids, that they have power to make changes that make a difference. And it's been a great teaching tool for global awareness.
"The fact that Greg is still doing what got started here at Westside, does make it special to our students, even today.
"It simply started as a good idea, a good cause, that we expected to run its course, but it's expanded and gotten bigger and kept growing. You have Gen. (David) Petraeus making Greg's 'Three Cups of Tea' required reading for his military leaders in Afghanistan, the book being a New York Times bestseller and the Nobel Peace Prize nomination. It's phenomenal where this has gone and is still going."